Saturday, 31 December 2016

Resolutions for 2017

1. Keep the house clean and tidy to a high standard.
2. Start an MA in Education.
3. Join some kind of exercise class in February.
4. Blog at least monthly.
5. Continue with current exercise schedule (light but regular).
6. Invest more in my life outside work.
7. Look at the bright spots.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Habits of 2016

In my journey towards the mountain (does anyone ever get to the mountain?) I've focused a lot on habits and developing the architecture of my life. Trying to build better habits, although I now see trying always to be a "better version of me" is actually a bad habit. There is no better version of me, and self-improvement leads counter-productively to isolating narcissism.

Still, developing good habits has been helpful. I read a lot of self-help books and once taken with a pinch of salt they can work. I've read "Grit" this year, and my favourite "Deep Work" by Cal Newport. Last year's book was "Better Than Before" and I've been keeping the Better than Before journal.

Some habits I thought were bad habits were really good habits. I had a habit of keeping a diary which I'd mostly write in the mornings and usually fill three A4 pages.  These were the morning pages from The Artist's Way. They had failed miserably in their intended purpose of getting me to write more, and they often took up to an hour to write as I ruminated and mentally digressed. So I said I'd give them up and switch instead to just keeping my Moleskine notebook. Things unravelled. First slowly, and then faster and faster until yesterday found me kneeling in my hallway, having dented my expensive front door with a kick of impotent rage, I had my head in my hands. I felt completely powerless and not sure what to do next. I think now my habit of writing was actually a good one, and it's one I think I'll go back to. Reflection is good.

I made a list last December of habits I would develop for the year. How many have stuck? Doing a few abs exercises in front of the telly. Putting on 20-25 minutes on the timer at least once a day and having a tidy-up. Unfucking my habitat at the weekends. Putting out my clothes for work the night before. Leaving the staffroom and finding somewhere quiet to work (this can be a challenge, both the leaving and the finding somewhere quiet). Taking five minutes to tidy up before leaving work. Reading classic fiction rather than watching television. Putting my Diet Coke in the fridge at night, and my breakfast in my handbag. These have all stuck, more or less.

What habits haven't been as sticky? Keeping better homework records. I've gotten better at this but it's still not as perfect as I'd like it to be. Sorting the laundry on a Friday. Getting blowdries. Keeping the fone charged. Getting the bus into town. Writing in cafés. Running. Bringing things in out of the car. Marking things on the calendar. Cooking my own food. Taking iron tablets. Writing. Going out on a Saturday.

There are some I've given up on, like meditating. I reckon going for a walk on my own fulfils many of the purposes of meditating. Also, I've shoved writing into certain periods i.e. the summer holidays. That is my writing time. This is after reading Newport's book, where he says there is a choice. You can do something every day, or allocated intensive blocks. I always felt guilty about not getting up early to write/ writing in the evening but this alternative way of looking at things - I'm either in writing mode or teaching mode - works better. Other things I've given up on are keeping the ironing board in the kitchen (why?), using a stamper (a habit I invested in by purchasing stamper) and sitting nearer the front in staff meetings.

There is still a week to go before deciding on next year's habits. Contenders from last year include going out on a Saturday night (have signed up to lots of meet-ups),being more materially generous (this is a bit of a vague habit), opening the post (I know!) and going for walks. The two-kilometre walk I do is better than the three-kilometre run that I don't. I'm considering joining a gym to do fitness classes but want to avoid the New Year rush and high prices. I reckon mid-February might be a time to do that. In the meantime, will walk and do my Minnie Mouse exercises at home.

Everything is alright really. I don't need to change who I am. There is no perfection, just excellence in the small things. There is reading. There are other people. There is the world, out there.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

On Not Gving a F**k

In an irreverent move I have decided that this year's Lenten penance will be giving up giving a fuck. As soon as I write that, it seems coarse and vulgar and not how it felt in my head. Seeing the word "fuck" isolates it, and makes me think of its literal meaning, whereas the phrase hung as a unit in my mind. I was waiting to respond to the next person who asked me "What are you giving up for Lent?"
"Giving a fuck."
What do I mean anyway? Worrying? Caring? Caring what other people think? It's hard to pin down. Caring so much about non-existent or potential observers maybe. Or calculating the knock-on effects of my actions, or more usually inaction, to the nth degree. Maybe.
Yesterday I was asked, by you can guess who, what advice would I give to myself at the age of eighteen, or nineteen, or twenty. I normally skip over these ages as a time where little would've helped, preferring to castigate my sixteen year old and twenty-five year old selves. So what would I say to my twenty year old self? Twenty is harder than eighteen or nineteen.
Give yourself a chance. You are worth more than this miserable existence you're enduring. I think the latter is harder to say; you can't say it, you can only make people feel it. I go back to give yourself a chance.
Take a chance on yourself. Take a chance that if you work hard it'll work out. I was an awful slacker, almost the definition of a self-saboteur. I can see myself in Kristen Neff's book "Self-Compassion" in the character who leaves buying black shoes until the morning of his wedding. I've always been a Last Minute Lucy, hoping for a miracle or accident to save the day. Neff writes "Failure of some sort is inevitable when we only make a half-hearted effort." I would say to myself: I know you hate the pastoral section of the 16th century poetry course, but don't bank on mutability coming up. Remember Leaving Cert Irish when you left out "Fill Aris" and that was the poem on the paper? All the work you did (at least 90% of the course) was a waste because you didn't cover all the bases.
Give yourself a chance, as much as you give others a chance. So what if none of your friends are doing French and the classes are on at awkward times in awkward locations? All that matter is that you are doing French.
Focus on you. This is your time to focus on you. Stop being hung up on the parents/the family/ your mental health/ Sylvia Plath. In fact if there is one piece of advice that would benefit not just myself at half the age I am now, but millions of other post-adolescent young women it is this: You Are Not Sylvia Plath. Focus on you now, and as a result you'll eventually have more interesting things than yourself to focus on.
Take a chance. Go out with that nice boy who likes you. Take a chance. Eat those dinners and stop propping that exit door ajar. There's an awful draught.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Why Buying Books is Okay, Even When You Already Own a Copy

One week into the 90 day challenge and how's it looking? Today -  the first real test - was a partial success; I used two parking discs rather than paying for the multi-storey car-park; I escaped from TKMaxx with nothing more than an item of practical underwear, even though tempted by array of bargain-some beauty product. Why did I even go there in the first place? It's my habit: a habit compounded by the shop's addiction-forming variable-reward system.
I'd had lunch at home and met a friend for hot chocolate before caving and stocking up in M&S.  At that stage I was tired and knew full well that that was willpower-depletion. I could have chosen to push through, to go buy some real food from local businesses. But sometimes knowing why you're doing something doesn't make it easier to not do it. Or, it doesn't make it easier enough.
I also bought a book. Buying books is allowed, as I have rarely regretted buying a book. Even awful self-help books that seemed - on inspection in Waterstones - to hold the secret to transforming my life only to be lots and lots of wasted ink and dead tree. With books you have to kiss a lot of frogs. Not only will you meet some Book Princes, you will over time develop a sixth sense for a book's amphibian-factor. The book I bought today is a Prince. I knew it would be, being "Better than Before" the latest from Gretchen Rubin. Not only have I read Rubin's previous two books, I'd also read this book. I bought it last month. I am a Book-Buyer-Lender-Buyer. Lending books to other people is one of my life's greatest pleasures. It's akin to the hobby of match-making, although there is a downside. This is that a book on loan is not a book on the shelf. And a book on loan may sometimes become a book lost. So every now and again, I will deliberately buy a book rather than resent the very book-reader relationship that I myself set up.
I like Rubin's book. It's witty and thought provoking and I like that she eschews playing amateur cognitive psychologist (although there's plenty of reference to actual research) in favour of anecdote and personal musings.   I even like that she neatly insists that since I disagree totally with her unscientific division of humanity into four habit types (Upholders, Rebels, Obligers and Questioners), this very resistance indicates that I'm a "rebel".

Saturday, 9 January 2016

90 Day No-Spend Challenge

Inspired by a post on that really scientific, factual site, I've decided to go on a spending diet. For the next 90 days, which'll roughly take me up to 10th April, I will not buy any of the following;
-make-up [apart from replacements]
-toiletries[apart from replacements]
-M&S ready-meals
-multi-storey parking
-magazines[ I hardly ever buy these anyway]
-decorative household items
-lunch out unless I'm meeting some-one
This is mostly to stop frittering away money on things that really don't give me much pleasure. I have a freakish stash of toiletries - shower gels, cleansers, gift-with-purchase miscellanies - that needs using up. I have very poor clothes buying habits. I wouldn't even have thought of clothes buying as habitual before seeing this. Not that I'm an awful spendthrift, if anything I'm too slow to "invest" in good quality, high-use items like coats and bags. I buy things because they're discounted but they don't go together. I also buy things for the Unreal Me. Unreal Me wears lots of dresses, which I buy for her but rarely wear myself. My motto for 2016 is "Accept Who Your Are, Change What You Do", and I have to face the reality that I'm just not some-one who's ever going to be a regular dress-wearer.
I'm also doing this to stop frittering away time browsing through the shops where I live. There's nothing wrong with this, but it's my default Saturday-with-nothing-on activity. I can still go into town, but the plan is to bring the notebook and write. Shopping/consuming is a mostly soulless pastime. I really enjoyed Judith Levine's "Not Buying It" and I really like the idea of a total spending fast, but there are a few things I'll be consuming more, not less, of
-cinema/theatre tickets
-trips out of Dodge
-meals/drinks in company
-regular haircuts instead of waiting until I'm the brunette Rapunzel
And finally, I'm doing this for the challenge. It's not climbing Everest, or even Carrauntoohil, but it will involve changing what I do. Am looking forward to it, if I'm honest.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Everywhere I Hear the Cry of Birds

Borris House in Carlow, scene of last weekend's Festival of Writing and Ideas

I missed the start of the conversation between Michael Harding and AC Grayling that was one of the highlights of the Sunday of the Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas. (Will write more on the festival later). I was there for the end though, when Grayling recited a poem in Chinese. This is the translation I wrote down quickly:

"We awake expecting to see the blossoms of Spring
Only to find the rains of autumn are already falling"

I like this, and thought perhaps that Leonard Cohen was right when that "a single line of Chinese poetry could change forever how blossoms fell". I went looking for the poem on Google, but couldn't find it. I found this though, which may be the same poem, translated differently.
"I slumbered this spring morning, and missed the dawn,
From everywhere I heard the cry of birds.
That night the sound of wind and rain had come,
Who knows how many petals then had fallen?"

And it is my life, right there. Everything. It's not that there any flowers left. I'm not infirm, yet. Many would call me a young woman, but only if I did something like die. Forty is young to die. It's old to do most of the things I want to do.

Now is the afternoon, when others' thoughts are turning to rest and the evening. They have done the work, some rising even before dawn. Their garners are full for the winter ahead, their young around them.

This is envy, a self-destructive emotion. I have thing that others envy and there is no balance-sheet in the sky. There's no metric for a good life, for happiness. I've been trying to follow Paul Dolan's advice in his excellent book "Happiness by Design" and focus less on the evaluating self which tots up the points on the life-satisfaction inventory and look instead at what I'm doing every day, at the experiencing self. I'm trying as well, relatedly, to consider how it feels more than how it looks when it comes to making decisions.

And I feel always that it's too late. And I feel always that I can't give up. And I know the most dangerous way of all to think of your life is that it's like a story. Especially a story from a film. The movies have spoiled us all into imagining narrative arcs where there is only rational chaos. I think, is this the critical moment, the turn of the screw, the second challenge our heroine must face and if she succeeds we will have resolution and the falling action of contented old age. This all depends on the screenplay and all too often I sit back and wait to see what will happen. All around me I see confirmation that for most people, like in most movies, there's a reasonable chance for a good outcome. These observations aren't a reliable guide. I could, for example, be the only one of my peers whose film is playing at the art-house cinema instead of at the Omniplex.

I got lost on my way to Borris. I got lost on the way home.  I sought the meaning of trying to work out a shortcut instead of going the suggested route. On the way home I had decided, decided I tell you, to take the Waterford route only to get to the first T-junction and take the other road. I expend myself in such useless challenges, like trying to break the six-stone barrier (My goal when I was twenty). These roads were built that way for a reason and you have to accept risks if you turn off them.

What's my useless challenge now? I spent a long time navigating the Carlow/ Kilkenny countryside, driving in circles through the narrow streets of the confusing towns, thinking I was on the right road, thinking wrongly that I was on the wrong road, doubling-back and sucking it up, and eventually I re-joined the main road and then I knew where I was and could breathe.

I'll never known what might have happened if I'd stayed on the road I'd decided on. I'll never see the petals that bloomed while I slept, though I torture myself with imagining. What would really be unreasonable would be to go back to bed in a huff, or to forget that soon enough the rain and the wind will truly and earnestly blow all signs of life away.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

"The Upside of Stress" by Kelly McGonigal

"Probably nothing is more universal than the experience of stress. Nobody gets through life without experiencing physical pain, illness, disappointment, or loss. The specifics may vary, but the underlying experience is a human as it gets."

This is the week the State exams begin, and every article you read about them contains some version of the advice "chill out", or worse "it's not the end of the world". The ESRI even brought out a report this week on the harm that stress is doing our students, especially the girls. Great timing.

Stress is toxic. It damages girls' performance in exams, and when they get a bit older, damages the performance of their ovaries. Every article you ever read (if you read them) about fertility will include the importance of avoiding stress. Advice about skin conditions tends to say the same thing. Not to mention mental health, where a whole industry has been built around the notion that stress is bad for you.

So how happy was I when I clicked on the Twitter link to this 2013 TED talk by Kelly McGonigal? I was soon a fan, looking at other talks and interviews she's given and ordering her book "Maximum Willpower" (for some reason not published in Europe under its original title: "The Willpower Instinct"). "Maximum Willpower" is now one of my favourite self-help books, and I've been awaiting the publication of McGonigal's follow-up "The Upside of Stress" with anticipation.

This is a much quicker read than "Maximum Willpower", a book whose density of research findings belies its bargain-book title. "The Upside of Stress" has also got a touch of the Louis Theroux about it, as there are several vignettes of McGonigal in this lab, or meeting that researcher, or going for a run with a group of teens and adults. It's what you'd expect from Michael Mosley or Alice Roberts; you know, here I am in an MRI machine/ here I am on a zip-wire so my saliva can be tested afterwards. There's lots of that here and it kind of reminds me of a tv tie-in book.

The overall premise of the book is revolutionary, yet entirely common sense. In fact, it proves the saying that common sense isn't that common at all and that things we think are common sense are closer to nonsense.  We all know that stress is harmful, we just know it at this stage. We know we should avoid stress, yet we fail. For anyone who's ever had a brush with mental illness, the spectre of stress is especially frightening, as we are told that part of minding ourselves means minimising stress in our lives.

What if all these things were wrong? Much of what McGonigal writes is convincing. The best example is also the simplest. You know the stress response you get before standing up to speak in public, or before sitting an important exam? The butterflies and the shakes and the racing heart? This is your body helping you rise to the challenge. It is to be welcomed and harnessed, not suppressed. I have tried to do this when faced with insta-stress such as last Thursday when making a speech in front of the entire staff. It is hard to do, really hard to think "this is my heart giving me courage" rather than "must.calm.down.or.else" and I can't say it worked 100% but I think it helped.

Although novel, this is unlikely to cause controversy. Most of us can see that kind of stress response as not that harmful to health. We're more likely to label chronic stress as harmful, or else traumatic stress from a major event. What about the stress of "suffering"? Here McGonigal's claims seem a little wilder. Even the most stressful of life events have an upside. There is a danger here of Nietzsche-inspired complacency towards the suffering of others and one of the papers she cites is actually called "Whatever Does Not Kill Us". There is a caveat that this research showed a U curve where experiencing extreme adversity harms much more than it benefits. It may be more accurate to say "what challenges us beyond what we thought we could do makes us stronger" but that's not quite pithy enough. Rather than The Upside of Trauma, the section on serious suffering is better looked on as suggestions on how to deal with the aftermath of decidedly undesirable events. For example providing opportunities for volunteering can lessen the impact of PTSD.  She does admit that "in some cases, stress is harmful" and writes that childhood abuse, for example, can impair the "tend-and-befriend" instinct.  You have to look hard for these admissions in the book, but they're there. The breezy tone can sometime be at odds with the subject matter; a section dealing with child survivors of the Rwandan genocide is an example. This cheeriness can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, she's probably been advised to lighten it up and increase the anecdote-to-science ratio to ensure the book's commercial success. On the other, it risks making the book's thesis easier to dismiss by those who make decisions in healthcare and other areas.

And it is an important argument. I have written earlier about the prevailing dread of stress that exists in the Irish education system, but McGonigal writes of the importance of "stress inoculation". Young people, and even children, need to experience some stress in order to activate their own resilience and, I would add, to learn from adult models how to deal with stress. Therefore we shouldn't be too worried about the fact that children experience stress. The notion that children should not be under any stress at all leads to policy being dictated by inane studies that ask children what the greatest source of stress is in their lives. Predictably they mention exams (the Junior Cert is a negative form of assessment, which causes stress), making friends and the transition to secondary school. This last is now perceived as a huge problem mostly on the basis that fifth and sixth class pupils report it as their main cause of stress. Seeing stress as less of a problem and more of a learning opportunity in itself would not only ease the transition but would help reverse the trend to making secondary school more like primary.

Fear of stress also permeates advice given around mental health. "Recognising and managing stress early will help prevent it leading to more serious problems such as anxiety, depression or high blood pressure" says the HSE's own mental health website. The notion that stress can be "managed" is slipped in there very innocuously but is perhaps the most dangerous stress belief of all. It's what keeps thousands of people chasing their own mental-health tail, caught in a never-ending personal campaign to protect their fragile mental health (yes, the HSE actually sponsors ads that tells people their mental health is "fragile), curtail the amount of stress they're under and dampen down their stress response through endless relaxation exercises.

A typical memory I have of my time in mental-illness care is being told to be "a human being, not just a human doing". I was exhorted to spend time "just being", even though I was unemployed at the time and really, really needed to spend more time "doing". If I started a job or a course, at the first hint of trouble I'd be encouraged to quit or drop out on the basis that "nothing is more important than your health".

This is where a book like "The Upside of Stress" would have come in handy. The difficulties I was experiencing could have been reframed as training in resilience. I have also come to realise that "put your health first" is often a euphemism for "put the organisation first". Quitting is promoted as an act of self-care, when perseverance might be the more selfish, yet wiser move.

While I think the book has much to offer the individual, I shudder at the ends to which this research might be put. McGonigal writes early in the book about a "mindset intervention" as a company was about to make 3,000 employees redundant. Such interventions are fine if conducted by a disinterested, outside party such as a group of researchers. They're less cosy and more creepy when sponsored by the companies themselves or used as subtle advertising by mental-health groups. No company or institution should think that it's okay to rack up the stress on employees, or others, or that a "stress mindset intervention" cancels out inhumane or unfair practices.

What I like most about "The Upside of Stress" was its link between stress and meaning. Meaning, or purpose, is the true upside of stress. And meaning can come from choice; either a project of our own choosing that we know will incur an inevitable amount of stress, or the choice to respond to stress in a the best way you can.Quitting your job or dropping out of a course or giving up on a goal for the sake of your health can make that health seem fairly meaningless.  McGonigal writes "Rather than being a sign that something is wrong with your life, feeling stressed can be a barometer for how engaged you are in activities and relationships that are personally meaningful". When you have no meaning, then even small amounts of stress seem unbearable and learning is hard.

So the title of the notes books "Less Stress, More Success" is totally misleading, not just when it comes to exams but in life in general. That's not to say that "More Stress, More Success" is necessarily the case either, or that stress is all good. "Seeing the upside of stress isn't about deciding whether stress is all good or all bad. It's about choosing to see the good in stress can help you meet the challenges in your life."

My resolution for June is to embrace stress and see stressful events (past and present) as learning opportunities. Funnily, this last resolution (learning from stress) is one that has driven me absolutely mad when others have suggested it to me. It can be very, very insensitive and ill-timed, so I'm going to recommend you actually read this book for yourself and maybe give it to other people when they're not actually in full-stress mode.

We'll see how well the stress-embrace is going in two weeks time when I'll be waist-deep in Leaving Cert exam scripts.